There’s a little bit of a bait and switch going on in How to Be a Dancer in 72,000 Easy Lessons, a quirky show that sometimes feels intensely private, like the communication between the performers is more of a priority than the communication with the audience. Creator and performer Michael Keegan-Dolan will tell you more about a lot of things in more detail than how he got to be a dancer: growing up in Ireland in the 1980s as one of twelve children, masculinity, anti-Irish prejudice in the UK, spiritual awakening, the loss of a sibling, and many other snippets of a life that ultimately led to a successful career as a choreographer. (And of how the show’s other performer, Rachel Poirier, got to be a dancer, we learn nothing.) So many of these vignettes—from being attacked with viciously anti Irish slurs by a London truck driver to reveling in the freedom to dance at a youth disco despite being called a queer to a painfully awkward first sexual encounter with an equally ignorant woman—flow past in a quick uninflected stream. You barely have time to register the emotional weight before Keegan-Dolan is moving on, but there’s a lot of darkness in the underbelly of what’s ultimately a sweet, lightly whimsical show that’s ultimately more about the ephemerality of theater and life itself than it is about dancing.
While we see how he’s pointed toward dance by his mother’s worshipful attitude toward it, the actual process of getting there is likewise—perhaps even more—dipped into lightly at critical moments, rather than explored or contextualized. He’s a pigeon-toed boy who takes his first ballet class at eighteen, a teenager in an intro class full of nine-year-old girls, trying to find his place in the world with his only prior dance experience the bravado to dance at the local disco. He ends up at a professional dance school in London shortly thereafter. He’ll be told there that he doesn’t have the turnout for ballet, but that leads to a chorus gig in a West End musical, and that leads to choreography. All of a sudden, that’s what he’s doing, and quite successfully.
But the how remains unclear. “How in God’s name did he get into this dancing shit?” his befuddled father asks, and while the show gestures at that question, it doesn’t really look too much at the actual process of either training to enter or succeeding in the professional dance world; one could come away from this show thinking charm is all it takes. Keegan-Dolan talks about feeling a sense of “rightness” in dance class, but with the same genial, friendly storytelling tone with which he describes his failures as a rugby player or his relationships with his many siblings. I never felt passion as much as a rueful acknowledgment of his shortcomings and relief at his success despite them. While you sense his delight at moving when he does dance, and his fluid way of being grounded in his body, he doesn’t go beyond the simplest steps.
The great majority of the dancing in the piece–which, despite being billed as “dance theater” is more of a conventional one-person show–is done by its other performer, Rachel Poirier, Keegan-Dolan’s partner in art and in life. (The script calls him the Dance Man and her the Dancer.) Sometimes she dances through his narrative, underscoring the story with movement, and the high point of the show, dance-wise, is a long solo that she performs while he stands upstage bearing the weight of a large tilted wooden crate, the show’s major set piece.
I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger this week, which is preoccupied with the idea of a double as the shadow self, the disconcerting and disavowed twin. The Dance Man and the Dancer do feel like the two sides of a whole performer, in a sense; he’s the storyteller giving us a pleasant, spiritually inflected journey through a life, and she’s the darker, stranger embodiment of the sheer weirdness of both life and art. (The design elements, particularly Hyemi Shin’s set and costumes, embrace weirdness and whimsicality, with helium balloons, a child’s bicycle, bunches of flowers, and wigs all coming out of the giant crate at the top of the show.) You might say the Dance Man embodies the show’s narrative and the Dancer embodies its theatricality. She sets the stage with power tools, she provides live sound effects and manipulates props, she speaks more in poetry and metaphor than in his more narrative prose, she dances while he goes from anecdote to anecdote. Bits of stage magic and weirdness lie almost to the side of both dancing and storytelling, but they’re the images that stick: the Dancer perched over the Dance Man’s head on top of a giant shipping crate, making the sound of a rewinding tape recorder, or letting a balloon fly up into the light grid, or riding a blue child-sized bicycle around the stage at an increasing pace; the Dance Man standing in a torn-open bag of potting soil.
The subtitle of the script is “A Performance Ritual in Four Parts for Two Performers” and the show does often feel like a ritual, one performed between Keegan-Dolan and Poirier. And like any ritual from a tradition to which one does not belong, parts of it strike emotional chords, parts are beautiful but not entirely comprehensible, and parts feel like they’re lost on the non-believer. As a dance lover who was once a ballet-obsessed little girl, I was surprised to find myself feeling like I was not among the initiated.